KNOXVILLE -- Justin Hunter broke through the invisible goal-line barrier against Troy.
The next touchdown the Tennessee receiver scores will be his first against a Southeastern Conference defense this season.
Hunter has not been invisible for the Volunteers in their five league losses, but he's yet to reach the end zone, a stat he surely hopes to change when Missouri visits Neyland Stadium on Saturday.
"I don't have a rushing one, so we all can't have what we want," quarterback Tyler Bray joked when asked if he'd make an extra effort to get his favorite receiver an SEC touchdown against the Tigers.
"We're always going to try. Whoever's open is going to get the ball."
The 6-foot-4 junior was open against the Trojans, when he covered a season-high 181 yards on nine catches with three touchdowns. The scores were his first since the Akron game in September. His other three touchdowns this season came against Georgia State in the season's second game.
Coach Derek Dooley said after Tuesday's practice that Hunter was limited during the morning's practice due to some soreness, and it was enough that he was unavailable for interviews.
Since Dooley directed some public criticism at the future NFL draft pick and Hunter reacted negatively on his Twitter, the talented wideout has 17 catches, 271 yards and three scores.
"He's continuing to be real focused and real confident and practicing real well," tight end Mychal Rivera said, "and that's going over to the games."
In the five SEC games, though, Hunter has caught just 22 passes for 323 yards, and that includes an eight-catch, 90-yard game against South Carolina.
Bray said Hunter's attitude has remained consistent.
"He's the same goofy kid he's been since he's been here," Bray said. "He'll be fine."
'Cutting it loose'
Like Hunter, Bray's numbers have looked good the past two games since a similar call-out from Dooley. The junior QB has thrown for 898 yards with nine touchdowns, including a program single-game record 530 yards against Troy. Bray stepped it up in practice after a forgettable performance against Alabama and has maintained that level.
"No question, he's earned it," Dooley said. "He earned it every day in practice, and that's why he's playing well. I believe that, and I believe that's why he's had the success has, and I told him he has to earn it every week."
Ten receivers have caught Bray passes the past two games.
"I feel like he's just cutting it loose out there," Rivera said. "All the other stuff is behind us. We've had our losses, we've had our ups and downs and he's just out there being Tyler, cutting it loose and just playing as good as he can."
In the fast Lane
Marlin Lane appears to have figured it out. Tennessee's tailback, plagued by practice inconsistency during August and September, has solved his biggest riddle. The result could be more carries and a greater role even when Rajion Neal fully returns from an ankle injury.
"I think for two weeks, these last two games, we've seen a Marlin Lane who's the same in practice every day," Dooley said. "Then he goes out and we know what we're getting in the game. That was something we didn't really get coming into the year and earlier in the year.
"I'm proud of Marlin, and he's really stepped up [and] performing the way he's capable of."
Since taking over for the injured Neal three games ago, Lane has averaged nearly 5 yards per carry and erupted for 132 yards against Troy. Neal returned from an ankle injury but isn't yet 100 percent. Lane said he's still the starter for Saturday's game against Missouri.
"It's hard to really say, but we view them as both of our running backs," Dooley said. "They're both productive, and it always depends on who's kind of got that groove going in the game."
Left tackle Antonio "Tiny" Richardson said the issue to his left knee is believed to be a meniscus injury. The sophomore said it forced him to miss some team periods in practice, and he could have the knee drained before Saturday's game. He said he had no doubts he was playing. ... Redshirt freshman safety Geraldo Orta (lower leg) continues to miss practice time. ... Antone Davis, the Vol for Life program's new coordinator, organized voter registration and presented information to players on how and where to vote for this year's election.
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...